"I miss my thumbs."
This is Horace's favorite refrain. It ends all discussions
of rearming, which are pointless, anyway. Even if we could
round up a ragtag army, even if we could find a cache of operable
weapons, even if we could locate the enemy all in one place
waiting for us to seek some revenge, we'd still have trouble
locating ammo. It's gone, along with the manufacturing sites,
surplus stores, roadside stalls, mail order, and as far as
we're concerned, the black market, too. All those hubs of
industry from our previous existence have vanished. The memories
of them are now blanketed under a murky miasma that lingers
around us constantly, inescapable and almost unbearable.
The excitement of competition
once enticed us. Arrogance blurred our vision. We foolishly
cut the tethers to that now-gone world. Without a thought
of what might be lost, we stampeded toward a cataclysmic cliff,
racing, as if in a dream, to leap into our present nightmare.
My own exposure to actual
combat was limited. The job I had been assigned was in requisitioning
and storage, also known as stealing and hoarding. Those of
us in charge of supplies frequently found ourselves the targets
of roaming bands of starving survivors. It was ugly there
for awhile. But now that many have died, things are better.
Talk around here sometimes
lights a fire under the younger ones, the ones who didn't
actually serve on the front lines. It takes those soldiers
who managed to return to bring the tribe back to reality.
Our surviving militia came back without their thumbs. Some
were blind, too. All were maimed in body or soul, or both.
That's the aftermath of losing, I guess.
I wonder about the other side,
the so-called winners of this war. "To the victors go
the spoils," seems like a sick joke or a cosmic double-cross.
Disease and famine amid smoldering rubbleis that the
prize? Streets lined with rotting corpses stacked as barricades,
carcasses too putrid to be consumed, and the stench of death
wafting over everything. Who would want to be the victors
if they knew the reward was merely to pillage and plunder
those razed towns?
I see madness reflected in
the eyes of nearly all survivors. Where are the ticker-tape
parades? Where are those beautiful girls waving flags and
flowers, ready to bestow kisses on any soldier within their
reach? Where are the promises of peace that should follow
any conflict? What was the point? These are the questions
I'd like to ask around the campfire, but I don't.
Most of the POWs were executed.
Some surviving soldiers, like Horace, were mutilated and then
sent home to relate the horrors they had seen and experienced.
Many were butchered by starving villagers. Cannibalism lost
any and all taboo status. Salvageable flesh from any source
became stew meat.
Horace often reminisces about
being a soldier, drifting into tragic tales of valor and sacrifice
before recalling the ultimate defeat that cost him his thumbs.
"No way would I be much of a soldier today. Not much
good as a farmer either. Or a carpenter. But I'm good as a
bard." He grins. "And I am excellent as a signaler."
"No argument here,"
one of the other old soldiers chimes in, giving Horace the
praise he craves.
When we asked why he was spared,
Horace explained his release with a Chinese proverb: "They
torture the chickens in order to scare the monkeys."
He winked and added, "I borrowed that from a wounded
Chinaman. Then, I modified it to fit." Horace has a lot
of modified expressions, which, sooner or later, he gladly
shares with our small clan as we huddle around the evening
"Still, I wish they hadn't
taken my thumbs. That was cruel." As he focuses on his
thumbless hands, he shakes his head and mutters, "Downright
malicious." Silence falls on our little band.
No one dares speak until Horace
shakes the mood by bellowing out some line from a song that
rumbles in his head. Tonight it is a Woody Guthrie tune that
breaks the spell. "This land is your land
land is my land, from California to the New York Islands.
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream water, this land
was made for you and me!"
Some of the others join in
meekly. It makes Horace happy to lead us in song, but it can
also cause him to erupt if someone gets a line wrong. It's
a precarious endeavor to sing along with Horace. I usually
drop my head or stare into the fire, hoping everyone remembers
the words, or at least can match Horace's version.
The cool autumn wind reminds
us that winter is coming and with it, the hardships that the
cold creates. Last year we lost three members of our group.
I dread the cold. I wish we could go south, but Horace says
that it's worse down there. I wonder how he knows that. His
health is failing, and maybe he fears we would not survive
without him, should he succumb to the rigors of the trip.
His cunning has saved the group numerous times. Even so, I
wish we could escape the coming snow.
Abruptly, our song stops.
Horace has raised his hand to silence us as he tilts his head
slightly to the right. He indicates by this movement that
he heard a sound in the brambles, and we all know what must
be done when his signal is given. It is us or them. Horace
has explained this principle on many occasions. Yet, I wonder
if we might not be too quick to assess strangers as enemies.
I have no time to ponder that
for Horace lets out his infamous, screeching signal. Everyone
rushes the dark perimeter. They scream, imitating Horace as
best they can while thrashing the darkness with their clubs
and ropes and knives. Our firelight and singing, once again,
has lured in another straggler.
"Moths to the flame,"
Horace speaks as the unwitting prisoner is dragged before
him. I secretly hope it isn't just some poor, hungry youth.
It is easier to witness the execution if the victim looks
like a villain, if he or she is marked with the tattoo of
some other clan. If the captive has an accomplice with him
or is armed with weapons, then I can believe Horace's claim
of, "Us or them."
However, if the prisoner looks
like one of us, it's harder. When I smell his flesh roasting,
I get a sick feeling inside, like maybe we are no better than
the hungry intruders we snare. Are we really the good guys,
or has our humanity been modified like one of Horace's proverbs?
I start to contemplate that,
but then my own hunger takes control. The flames from the
hickory wood plume, and I find myself joining in the camaraderie,
sharing in the feast that the campfire has brought us, mindless
of the darkness lapping at the borders of our camp as Horace
bellows out a phrase and leads us in song.